January 28, 2020

The Allure of the Spring Gardening Catalogs

I remember it well.  It was one of those awful days at the end of December.  Sleet changed to rain and back again in a meteorological tug-of-war that seemed to have sapping the post-holiday spirit as its lone purpose.  At mid-day, I trudged out to the mailbox at the end of our driveway, managing to turn an umbrella inside out when a gust of wind caught it as I reached in for whatever the postman had seen fit to leave on such a dreary afternoon.  Back in the house, I plunked the mail down, un-inspected, on the kitchen counter and went off to finish my book. 

The catalogs are all marked up, and
two orders are already in.
I came downstairs an hour later and found my wife at the dining table.  There was the aroma of a freshly-brewed pot of tea.  Across the table’s surface were catalogs and magazines – specifically gardening catalogs and magazines.  One had already been marked up with pages folded over and items circled.  Another was undergoing the same scrutiny.  The third and fourth waited in the wings.

Regardless of what the calendar says, with the arrival of those glossy, color catalogs, the spring gardening season is officially underway.  And, the winter gloom seems to have lifted just a little.

Darcus Daria, a fancy name for
Queen Anne's lave
White Flower Farm featured Daucus ‘Dara’ on its cover.  To me, it’s Queen Anne’s Lace, but if someone wants to call it by some unfamiliar name and label it a ‘hard-to-find’ annual, that’s fine with me.  ‘Dara’ offers delicate flowers ranging in color from white to maroon.  By the vehemence of the circling, I have every reason to believe it will grace our garden this spring and provide a burst of color beginning in July.

Scabiosa is a perfect 'picking' flower
Scabiosa, better known as pincushion flower, has one of the least attractive names ever appended to a beautiful flower.  Johnny’s of Maine features a ‘Pincushion Series’ featuring a mix of color from almost black to creamy apricot and lavender blue.  The wonderful thing about scabiosa is they’re near perfect for cutting.  They can simultaneously grace a garden as well as a dining table.

Betty’s heart never wanders far from the vegetable garden, and I found a dozen pages folded over in Pinetree Seeds’ 2020 catalog.  After several disappointing tries, we had great success with fennel this past year.  I don’t know if ‘Florence’ fennel is the same variety we grew in 2019, but this one promises a one-pound bulb twice the size of its nearest competitor, yet delivering sweet, anise-like flavor.

My love of okra - and its hibiscus-like
flower knows no bounds
She also grows okra because my southern roots demand I have it as part of my diet.  This year, she circled one called ‘Jambalaya’ (the perfect name, in my view) that promises dark green pods in 55 days.  Because it can’t be planted until the soil temperature is close to 80 degrees, getting from seed to fruit in under two months sounds about perfect for New England. 

Ultimately, gardening catalogs are a lifeline between the past and the future.  We’ve chosen to live in a climate where fruit, flowers, and greenery are compressed into five or six months that are equal parts precious and spectacular.  Looked at from an outdoor gardener’s viewpoint, January is the year’s nadir, not its start.  It has been three months since the garden was alive with color, and it will be three months until it again begins to show its promise.  Those catalogs are tangible proof spring is just a few months away.

January 5, 2020

Everything I Thought I Knew About Feeding Birds Was Wrong

I really hate it when my cherished illusions are shattered.  Having a car would finally make me popular with girls.  The Beatles would get back to together – with or without Ringo.  It always snowed Christmas Eve in New England.  All proved wrong, some painfully so.

Our feeder visitors include a 
mated pair of northern cardinals
Now, I’ve just learned everything I thought I knew about feeding birds was hooey.  It turns out they don’t need us.  We’ve spent a fortune on suet, seed, and squirrel baffles for naught.

The authority of this truth is a gentleman named Christopher Leahy, whose credentials are hard to dismiss.  He is the Gerard Bertrand Chair of Natural History and Field Ornithology (emeritus) at Mass Audubon.  His means of disabusing me of my sense of noblesse oblige toward the avian community is an article in the winter edition of ‘Native Plant News’, published by the Native Plant Trust.

Ounce for ounce, hummingbirds are
the nastiest creatures on earth
Betty and I have two near-year-round feeding stations on our property.  From May to September, we limit ourselves to a pair of hummingbird feeders.  We have learned from having those feeders that hummingbirds are the nastiest, most territorial and, ounce-for-ounce, lethal creatures on earth; but that is a different story.  Come winter, we pull out all the stops with two sunflower seed feeders and two suet cages.  Both stations are protected by squirrel-proof baffles, and I will admit that my enjoyment of watching rodents with bushy tails spend hours trying to defeat our defenses runs a close second to that of watching birds alight and partake of our largesse.

A flicker can consume a suet cake
in an afternoon
Mr. Leahy wastes no time in puncturing my ‘good human deed’ balloon.  “Many, if not most people who feed birds do so under the impression that they are providing necessary sustenance, without which many birds would perish, especially during our harsh northern winters,” he writes.  Then adds, “This is simply untrue.”

It turns out birds feed themselves perfectly well without our help.  Evolution has provided them with ‘an exquisitely sensitive metabolism’ and a ‘highly effective insulation system’ to find all the food they need.  It takes a Field Ornithologist to write a put-down like that.

So, the idea of ‘the hungry bird’ is just a myth, born in the mid-19th Century when human ignorance, greed, and depredation (those are Mr. Leahy’s highly accurate words) were causing many bird species to be hunted to the point of extinction.  One solution was to create bird sanctuaries as safe havens.  Another was to import plants that grew quickly, had thick foliage, and produced lots of fruit.  The first idea yielded the Aubudon Society and its many sanctuaries, which also became educational centers.  The latter yielded such unloved additions to our landscapes as oriental bittersweet, Japanese barberry, and burning bush.

We have transformed our 
property into a bird-friendly site
Today, 55 million Americans annually purchase 3 billion pounds of seed, suet, mealworms and such; not to mention spending $800 million on feeders, poles, and baffles.  It is all for our own human enjoyment.  We have set up the equivalent of fly-through McDonalds in our back yards that make it easy for birds to get exactly the same stuff they would have found on their own.  Actually, I’m not so certain of that.  This afternoon, I watched a flicker consume the better part of a suet cake at one sitting.  Where, exactly, is there suet in January?  Maybe I don’t want to know the answer.

Mr. Leahy offers an ecological alternative to feeders: turning your property into a bird-friendly habitat. I’m pleased to report we check nearly all of his boxes.  His suggestions:

This ilex verticulata provides 
winter food for many birds
Kill your lawn or let it go to seed.  Instead of a lawn, we have native ground covers and wildflowers.
Leave an area of rank grasses and wildflowers.  The back border of our property is a continuous ribbon of wildflowers, and we leave the seed heads up specifically to feed the birds.
Don’t over-prune trees or, better yet, don’t prune them at all.  We started with a sterile half-acre of pines, with nothing on the forest floor except burning bush and swallowwort.  We now have a dozen specimen trees – all natives – but none are as yet remotely mature.  However, an additional acre of our property is untouched, mature oaks and pines.
Leave dead trees standing and, when they fall, leave them on the ground.  Check and double check.  We will admit, however, to ‘rearranging’ fallen trees to look more artistic.
Retain areas of heavy brush.  The wetlands behind our home do just that.
Encourage insects with appropriate plantings.  Most of our front garden is a pollinator paradise.
Plant native fruit-bearing shrubs and eliminate invasive species.  Double check.
Avoid garden chemicals.  Check.
Keep your cats indoors.  No feline member of our family has ever been allowed to run free outdoors.

Instead of a lawn, wildflowers
I do wonder about one thing Mr. Leahy does not touch on:  by feeding the birds in winter, are we ‘training’ them to come looking for insects on our property the rest of the year?  Our evidence is only anecdotal, but we see and hear a lot of birds in the non-feeding months.  I like to think they think we have a nice place to hang out.